Crowd cheers on a political 'Smackdown'


It seemed fitting that NAACP President Kweisi Mfume adopted a boxing promoters cadence in introducing last nights gubernatorial debate at Morgan State University.

Ladies and gentlemen, Mfume began before the television cameras started rolling. You know, in Las Vegas they say Go to your respective corners. But were not going to do that.

But he might as well have.

This was the election-time equivalent of WWF Smackdown. It was held in a cavernous college auditorium in which the crowd behaved as if it were watching a television game show.

The NAACP, which sponsored the debate, said it did what it could to keep things in check.

The organization warned attendees during the debate against loud displays of enthusiasm and, earlier, it cautoned against displaying campaign signs.

Some of the partisans approaching the metal detectors at the main doors were even asked to remove campaign T-shirts bearing the names of the combatants Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Republican U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr.

Richard W. Fairbanks, first vice chairman of the Baltimore City Republican Party, arrived in the hall wearing a white Ehrlich T-shirt turned inside-out. He said he was told at the door that the shirt violated the debates ground rules.

"I sure wouldn't wear it like this on my own," he said grumpily. "I think this is ridiculous." But once inside the hall, though, Fairbanks eventually turned the shirt around, and with good reason. It turned out that scores of Townsends supporters and a lesser number of Ehrlich backers had not only brought in T-shirts but also blue plastic campaign signs they waved frantically at the stage.

The boosters in the crowd cheered lustily when their candidates arrived on stage. Earlier, there was a smattering of boos when Ehrlichs family his wife, Kendel, and parents, Robert Sr. and Nancy, were escorted to their front-row seats. At several points, Townsend supporters chanted KKT to rhythmic applause during the opening introductions.

But, in a goodwill gesture, Townsends daughters Kate, 18, and Kerry, 10 walked across their row before the debate began to greet and shake hands with Ehrlichs family.

While negotiations for a possible debate began weeks ago, many of the details about structure fell into place late.

The NAACP had proposed that the candidates prepare brief biographical videos to show as an introduction. But the idea was rejected, in part, according to Townsends campaign, because of the cost of producing them.

Also uncertain until late was whether the lieutenant governor candidates were going to participate. It was ultimately decided that Townsends running mate, Adm. Charles Larson, and Ehrlichs partner on the ticket, Michael S. Steele, would appear at the beginning and deliver brief remarks in support of their candidates.

The audience continued its partisan ways after the preliminaries, and when some hooted Ehrlich as he tried to speak, Townsend approached the microphone and urged them to behave. "It's not the right way to do it," she said.

Mfume followed her to the microphone, saying: "We have to be dignified in our approach no matter where we stand on the issues. We really need to refrain from our applause."

Each candidate was given 300 tickets, which they allocated to supporters, dignitaries, volunteers and others. Their guests sat downstairs along with people invited by the NAACP and by the university.

The debate was also open to the public, and most people were seated in the balcony. The auditorium, which has a seating capacity of 2,200, was more than two-thirds full.

On the other side of the building, Morgan State musicians playing piano, horns, drums and other instruments rehearsed in practice rooms as if it were just another night.

Sun Staff Writer Sarah Koenig contributed to this article.

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